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Wyoming Supreme Court orders return of half-million dollars seized in I-80 traffic stop

Wyoming Supreme Court orders return of half-million dollars seized in I-80 traffic stop

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Scales of Justice

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday morning ordered state authorities to return to an Illinois man $470,000 that police seized in 2013 on the side of Interstate 80.

The seizure was made under civil asset forfeiture law, which allows courts to award to the government money that authorities allege to be the proceeds of crimes. Under the civil forfeiture process — unlike such proceedings undertaken as part of criminal cases — prosecutors are not required to convict a person of a crime in order to be awarded the money. Instead, the lower standards of proof required in civil proceedings apply.

The state’s highest court ruled on Tuesday, however, that when the attorney general’s office waited nine months from the date of the traffic stop and before filing the civil case, it violated Robert Miller’s right to due process under the U.S. Constitution.

Miller was never charged with a crime in connection with the traffic stop.

Many of the court’s determinations regard concerns that are no longer at issue: In 2016, the state legislature modified large portions of the law allowing such seizures. As part of the change, the law now states that prosecutors are to file civil forfeiture requests within 120 days of the seizure of the cash or within 30 days of conclusion of any related criminal case. Because that change was not made retroactively, though, Miller’s case proceeded under the version of law on the books when he was stopped. That law called only for authorities to file their cases “promptly.”

The case dates to November 2013, when a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper stopped Miller on suspicion of speeding on Interstate 80. Miller told the trooper that he was driving a rental car from Reno, Nevada, to his Illinois home. The trooper noticed Miller’s rental agreement was made in California and asked permission to continue questioning Miller after the traffic stop. He agreed and then gave the trooper permission to search his car.

In the trunk of the car, hidden underneath the carpet, the highway patrolman found a manila envelope full of cash. The patrolman read Miller his rights, Miller asked for a lawyer and the trooper finished searching the car, where he found a total of $470,000 in similar envelopes. The trooper found that law enforcement records tied Miller to a drug case from California.

That case, involving the hallucinogen LSD, was later revealed to be eight years old.

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation asked later that night for authorization to seize the money. Then-Attorney General Peter Michael granted permission under civil asset forfeiture law.

The state, however, did not file a court case seeking to keep the money until August 2014. When prosecutors brought the case, they alleged that the money was involved in a violation of Wyoming drug law. Miller denied the claim and asked a state judge to throw the case out. The judge declined to do so and at trial in 2018 awarded the cash to the government.

On appeal, the government argued that a blanket time requirement of one year applied in the case. The Supreme Court, however, ruled against state lawyers on that issue, determining that to do so would violate precedent preventing the court from ruling in a way that would render statutory language — such as the requirement of promptness at issue — meaningless.

The appellate court used a test taken from federal case law under the Sixth Amendment to make its determination, ruling that justifications offered by the government in Miller’s case didn’t justify the delay. A claim, for instance, that criminal investigation occupied seven months of the government’s delay, did not adequately explain the wait.

In its order, penned by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, the court ordered the case dismissed and the money returned to Miller.

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Crime and Courts Reporter

Shane Sanderson is a Star-Tribune reporter who primarily covers criminal justice. Sanderson is a proud University of Missouri graduate. Lately, he’s been reading Cormac McCarthy and cooking Italian food. He writes about his own life in his free time.

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